Vietnam’s Trade Goals Open Door for Religion

TAY NINH, Vietnam — Vietnam’s Communist leaders, partly in an effort to boost trade with the U.S., are loosening state constraints on religious freedom. That is helping revive a once-fading religion that reveres Joan of Arc, Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen and French author Victor Hugo as saints.

The white-robed followers of Caodai, or the Supreme Being, have been coming to Tay Ninh to practice their fusion of Buddhist and Roman Catholic beliefs since the 1920s. The local founders of the faith hoped to pick the best of East and West to create a new global religion. After Communist northern Vietnam defeated the U.S.-backed South in 1975, Vietnam’s new rulers in Hanoi suppressed the Caodaists; those remaining retreated underground or survived in pockets of Vietnamese emigrés around the world.

In recent years, Vietnam has started allowing greater expression of religious belief because it wants to help defuse tensions over the issue with the U.S. Vietnam is trying to foster the U.S. as a major trading partner as it transforms its centrally planned economy into a free-trading one dependent on exports and foreign investment.

U.S. companies such as Intel Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have invested heavily in Vietnam since then-President Bill Clinton lifted a U.S. economic embargo against Vietnam in 1994. American customers now buy one-fifth of Vietnam’s total exports, helping to expand Vietnam’s economy by an average of 7.5% a year since 2000.

Occasionally, the issue of religion gets in the way. The U.S. Congress has periodically tied religious freedom to expanding trade with Vietnam. President Bush pointedly attended an ecumenical service at a Roman Catholic cathedral in Hanoi while attending an economic summit in 2006.

Vietnam’s leaders believe they can’t afford disputes over freedom of worship to set back their overhaul drive, according to people familiar with the thinking of Vietnam’s close-knit politburo. So the government is toning down its hostility to organized religion. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican last year to help improve ties with the Catholic Church. Catholicism, Buddhism and Caodaism are now protected by a government ordinance enacted in 2004.

For Caodaism, the government’s new attitude has helped stimulate an influx of recruits at a time when millions of people are leaving the countryside for life in the cities. Many see religion as a spiritual toehold as their country continues its transition to a free-market economy.

Lu Duc Ly, 25 years old, is one of them. He says he converted to Caodaism when he left his rural village to take a job as a janitor in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, where nearly 10 million people live. “It gives me somewhere to spend my free time when I’m not working or looking for work,” he said.

The Caodaists’ seat at Tay Ninh is partly modeled on the Vatican, much as the faith draws heavily from Catholic beliefs. Its saints typically include nationalist or revolutionary figures from history, hence the religion’s devotion to people such as Joan of Arc and Mr. Sun, as well as Mr. Hugo, whose work was frequently driven by his strong social conscience.

The Caodaists’ highest authority in Vietnam, 74-year-old Cardinal Thuong Tam Thanh, worries whether its sprawling grounds are large enough to accommodate the tens of thousands of worshipers who have flocked to the ornate, dragon-encrusted temples to celebrate an annual full-moon festival.

“We would never have seen so many people here 10 years ago,” Cardinal Thanh said, peering out from behind clouds of incense wafting through his office. “There’s more than there were last year, too, and it’s not even noon.” He said the number of Caodaists in Vietnam has doubled to five million in the past decade.

At the Caodaists’ Grand Divine Temple, the faithful sit beneath statues of Jesus Christ, Buddha and Confucius while priests explain there is more than one path to enlightenment. The centerpiece is a huge green globe daubed with stars, clouds and a single all-seeing eye. Outside, families gather on woven mats to eat vegetarian snacks.

The government’s new tolerance goes only so far. More religious freedom hasn’t translated into further political rights or any broader freedom of expression for Vietnam’s people. The government frequently clamps down on any trace of dissent. A number of Protestant groups, particularly those active among tribal communities in the remote central highlands, are banned, as are some fringe Buddhist groups. The government also keeps close tabs on mainstream organizations, tailing some visitors to the Caodaist complex at Tay Ninh, for example.

“There’s a greater degree of openness on the surface, but there’s still a lot happening which isn’t visible,” said the Rev. Le Trong Cung, a Roman Catholic priest in Hanoi. He says the appointment of priests to some provincial areas must be approved by the government. The Catholic Church is prohibited from opening schools, despite a lack of teaching resources nationwide.

Still, the government’s growing acceptance of religion has emboldened the country’s seven million Catholics. Hundreds of them camped out last month at what used to be the Vatican’s embassy in the capital before it was seized by the Communists in the 1950s. They want the building returned to the Church instead of being used as a disco, as it was until recently.

“Maybe we couldn’t have come out to demonstrate five years ago, but we are taking our opportunity now,” said one man attending the protest who declined to be identified.

Much of the government’s suspicion toward religion dates from Vietnam’s series of wars between nationalists and colonial occupiers. The Communist North regarded the Catholic Church as a beachhead for foreign influence in Vietnam.


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